The Central Arkansas Library System is getting ready to pay homage to the 5,526 Black men who escaped enslavement and joined the Union army to fight for their freedom during the Civil War.
CALS is looking for an artist to create a memorial statute for the Arkansas men who served in the United States Colored Troops. It will join four other monuments in Arkansas that honor Union soldiers including the Minnesota Monument at the Little Rock National Cemetery.
About 160 Minnesota soldiers died while serving in Arkansas and 36 are buried at that cemetery, according to the library's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The Minnesota Monument is a sculptural statue. The other monuments -- all stone pillars -- are in Gentry, Siloam Springs and Judsonia.
In 2013, the first and only monument honoring Black Union soldiers in Arkansas was erected in Freedom Park in Helena-West Helena.
Bobby Roberts, the longtime executive director of the library system who retired in 2016, was the spearhead behind the idea of creating a monument honoring the Black soldiers.
"For a long time, several of us have felt that there needs to be something for the Arkansans who fought for the Union during the Civil War. There's between 20-25 Confederate monuments scattered around the state but there is really only one sculptural statue honoring the Union," Mark Christ, head of adult programming at the library and a Civil War historian, says of the Minnesota Monument.
Earlier this year, the library system announced it was seeking requests for qualifications from artists to build the monument that will be located somewhere in Library Square -- an area that includes the Main Library, the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art and the Ron Robinson Theater.
The library expects to spend a minimum of $150,000 for the project. The budget may increase through private fundraising and grant requests.
"We feel like it is past time for the Union soldiers to be honored," Christ says. "There were 10,000 white and 5,526 Black Arkansans who served in the [Union army] in the Civil War. The Black regiments weren't raised [called into service] until 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed.
"The Union saw a great source of manpower that was not being utilized so they started raising those units. In Arkansas there were eight units of infantry and two artillery batteries that were raised."
Christ says nationwide 185,000 soldiers fought in U.S. Colored Troop units and another 18,000 Black men served in the U.S. Navy. More than 68,000 of those men died in service -- mainly from disease. The Black soldiers fought in 449 Civil War engagements including 39 major battles.
The Union monument will go up as Civil War monuments are being taken down across the nation.
"I am sure there will be some people who don't agree with us having this memorial, possibly because it's memorializing African American troops, possibly because it is memorializing Union troops," says Tameka Lee, the library's communications director. "But there is a sadness in our hearts. As a person who is African American -- and there are millions of us living in Southern states -- this is the counterpoint to that. This is something where there's a sense of pride.
"It does seem like we are at a point where it is time to honor those who did serve and I am sure to serve and fight for their own freedom which I think is something that gets lost in the narrative of the African American experience," she says.
Christ points out that Black soldiers served in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812.
"It was in the early 19th century that the War Department passed a rule that Blacks would not be allowed into the Army," Christ says. "And that stood there for about 50 years or so until the Civil War started."
Currently around 20 Black soldier memorial statues exist in 13 states and Washington, D.C., including six in Confederate states, Christ says.
The Central Arkansas Library System's main library is about to undergo a major renovation that is expected to be completed sometime in 2025. Both Christ and Lee hope the monument is completed by then -- but that is only a wish.
"That would be pretty excellent timing, but I don't really know if we can say for sure," Lee says.
The existence of art at public libraries is nothing new. When what was then called the Little Rock Public Library opened in 1910, no art museums existed in the capital city. So the library became the default custodian of works of art. The library's first significant piece of exterior art -- the statue of Icarus and Daedalus that is now in the garden at the Main Library -- was donated by Raymond Rebsamen in the 1960s. Today about 15 pieces of exterior art are located at the library's branches.
The Central Arkansas Library System welcomes private donations that can be earmarked for this project. For more information on how to contribute go to cals.org/giving. The deadline for artist applications is April 30. To learn more go to cals.org/news/cals-seeks-rfq-from-artists.
CORRECTION: Tameka Lee, the library's communications director said, "That would be pretty excellent timing, but I don't really know if we can say for sure" when asked about the monument being completed by 2025. She was misquoted in an earlier version of this article.